Crossing the Line: Jérôme Bel's Isadora Duncan
Jérôme Bel’s Isadora Duncan, US Premier
September 25, 2019
Catherine Gallant stands on the bare stage of the French Institute: Alliance Française (FIAF). For the next hour, she will address the audience, like a tour guide, introducing, demonstrating, and teaching the dances of Isadora Duncan. Tracing Duncan’s career through the early 1900s, she presents a range from the modernist dancer’s oeuvre, as many of her dances were only a few minutes long. This is one of Jérôme Bel’s tried and tested choreographic templates: a single dancer, alone on stage, vocally animating their dances with descriptions, historical information, and anecdotal details. As co-founder of the company Dances by Isadora, Gallant is trained in the conservation of Duncan’s legacy, and therefore legitimized to provide “true” reenactments of Duncan’s work.
The piece opens, however, with Gallant talking through the skeleton of her own biography, how she was inspired as a child by the book Duncan Dancer. Indeed, in this performance, dance is rendered textual, with Gallant deconstructing the dances for us into “movement sentences.” One such “movement sentence” might include a few skips across the stage with gaily swinging limbs, before turning to the audience, arms extended wide as if to welcome the Gods, and finally letting the hands drift angelically down and the head tilt to the side. As Duncan originally composed her works using images from ancient Greek art, Gallant will now deconstruct the dances’ choreographic "sentences" back into their original vocabulary of static images. As she moves silently through the dance, she labels different movements. A downward dipping movement is emphatically accompanied by the word “Dive.” She turns and spreads her arms outward: “Emerge.” She pauses, her heavy breathing magnified through the microphone.
Isadora Duncan is part of a series of similar works by Bel (including, Cédric Andrieux, Véronique Doisneau, and Pichet Klunchun) that focus on a single dancer. Overlaying this template now on Duncan, there is a feeling of disinterest in the dances themselves. The gaze is almost clinical. The informative opening, tracing the lineage of Gallant and Duncan, evokes an anthropological lens. Dance is held at a distance. As dance scholar Noémie Solomon writes, Bel shifts the attention from “dance itself to that which surrounds dance.” Describing Véronique Doisneau, which featured the ballerina Doisneau chronicling her work and life at the Paris Opera, Bel explained: “To me, the Paris Opera was like the Amazon, a completely different civilization! I went there as an ethnologist would go to meet indigenous people.”1
With a simple gesture and vacant smile, Gallant holds up her Duncan tunic before us like an air hostess with a life jacket. Deftly, she demonstrates how to fasten the elastic around her waist. It is an informative instruction. Yet it also reveals the religious reverence with which Gallant treats these traces of Duncan’s legacy. Duncan is often heralded as "the mother of modern dance" and, in this work, Bel’s ethnographic lens focusses on those dedicated to preserving the importance of Duncan. Bel has shifted our attention to the broader theatrical apparatus: we learn about Gallant’s training and the lineage of teachers between her and Duncan, in addition to the economic factors that shape this practice. The specific language Gallant inherits from her teachers, along with the deconstructed gestures, costumes, fragments of history, all begin to appear like strange totems of an archaic and eccentric culture. One that is at the same time familiar and totally foreign. A tradition established with Duncan and devoutly maintained by her successors, the “Isadorables,” in a direct lineage of teachers and students through to the present day.
Seated in the auditorium at the FIAF, the leading French cultural center in New York, the audience here seems an extension of the culture Bel is scrutinizing. It was hard to shake the sense that we were stuck in some kind of exaggerated, self-congratulatory path that looped back and forth between Paris and New York. Duncan, the American Francophile who toured the New York "wealthy" and Parisian "aristocracy" (for Catherine, the distinction is clear, “aristocracy” is European), whose legacy is fostered in America, is now reframed by a major French choreographer, with support from the French Ministry of Culture, in the center of the U.S. cultural capital. The auditorium's small size—of no more than a couple hundred devotees—seems to exaggerate the dwindling colony of people for whom these dances retain their original importance.
As for Duncan’s dances themselves, Bel’s distanced ethnographic frame enriches some and kills others. After Gallant recalls the sudden death of Duncan’s two children when their car crashed into the river Seine, the gestures of the dance, Mother, and Gallant’s descriptions, are reimbued with pathos. Meanwhile, the final dance was made to illustrate Duncan’s support for communism. Abstracted slow-motion pounding of the earth and the raising of clenched fists to the sky are accompanied by piano. Gallant, again, vocally annotates how each gesture evokes, for instance, the summoning of the people, or the resisting of oppression. The political and emotional power of the piece is sapped. Accompanied by hyperbolic phrases of “revolution,” the gestures appear flat and pathetic. For those not part of the Duncan disciples, the earnest nature of the performance is rendered irrevocably camp.
- As quoted by N. Solomon, Talking Dancing: Véronique Doisneau and the Somato-Discursive Invention of the Choreographic Sujet, Dance Chronicle, 41:1, 29-50.